President Bush won an important homeland security test vote yesterday when the Senate signaled its unwillingness to set up a powerful new anti-terrorism office that the White House opposes.
By a 55 to 41 vote, the Senate effectively endorsed Bush's position against the office, which would be subject to Senate confirmation and have broad budgetary powers. The office was included in the Democratic version of the bill setting up a new Homeland Security Department, but Bush sees it as an unwarranted congressional intrusion.
Although a final vote was put off on an amendment removing the office entirely from the bill, 48 Republicans joined six Democrats and an independent, Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, in siding with the president on the preliminary vote.
"It's clear from the vote we have just taken that a majority of the Senate feels it goes too far," said Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) of the proposed office.
Less certain was whether that coalition would hold on the other main controversy in the debate over the new department: whether the president should have greater powers to hire and fire, or to exempt from union coverage, the proposed agency's 170,000 workers.
But Republicans said the vote on the anti-terrorism office showed that Bush has the upper hand in the creation of an agency intended to protect Americans from terrorism at home.
"We ought to give the president the benefit of the doubt," said Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.).
The homeland security office occupied by Tom Ridge was created by Bush last year via executive order. The White House strongly resisted congressional efforts to force Ridge to testify on Capitol Hill, and Bush has made it clear he wants to keep Ridge's counsel about potential threats and U.S. intelligence confidential.
"He's entitled to have his own counsel with regard to this," Thompson said.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), chief sponsor of the Democratic bill, tried to offer a compromise on the anti-terrorism office, but he was blocked by a fellow Democrat, Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who threatened a filibuster. Byrd favors greater congressional involvement in homeland security.
"I am in favor of creating a Department of Homeland Security. But I am not in favor of Congress doing that and then walking away," Byrd said.
With that latest delay, it appeared likely that most action on the homeland security bill would be put off until next week. Earlier yesterday, House Republicans heaped scorn on Senate Democrats for the slow pace, noting that the House passed its bill in July.
"There's no excuse for not giving the people of this country a homeland security bill," said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said the more careful Senate debate will produce "a much better bill" than the House version.